Senate Dems at odds over health deadline

A bipartisan group of senators has yet to establish a deadline for completing healthcare legislation, according to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), contradicting a party leader.
 
Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who is leading closed-door negotiations, downplayed reports the he had until Sept. 15 to complete work on the bill.

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Not so, Baucus said Monday after meeting the “gang of six” senators - Democrats Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad, and Republicans Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

But a deadline will be set, he said.

“We’ve got to have some kind of a stopping point,” Baucus told reporters. “We’ll discuss an exact date in the next couple days.”

Senate Democrats disagreed over whether there was a Sept. 15 deadline in the first place.

Bingaman said there was “not a firm deadline” adding, “I think we’re trying to finish it some time in September.” But Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the third-ranking Democratic leader and a Finance Committee member who is not part of the negotiating group, touted the Sept. 15 deadline during a conference call with reporters earlier Monday.

Republicans, meanwhile, objected to the very concept of a deadline.

The dispute – or confusion – over timing portends further delays for a bill that President Barack Obama originally wanted passed by the Senate this Friday and threatens to prolong the Finance Committee’s deliberations threaten long into the autumn.

Baucus has been under pressure from Democrats to show he is making progress on Obama’s foremost domestically policy initiative while the three Republicans have been pushed not to agree to anything too quickly, nor without consulting their GOP colleagues.

According to Schumer, Baucus and Grassley agreed last week they needed more time and that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) gave his blessing to the Sept. 15 deadline.

“We want these negotiations to work, so when both Baucus and Grassley said they needed more time, Leader Reid said he understood,” Schumer said.

“I think the timeline is more than fair,” he said. “Six weeks should be enough to succeed.”

If Baucus is not able to forge a bipartisan deal by then, “you have to wonder whether Republicans would ever agree to anything,” Schumer said. Democrats are planning for “contingencies” under which the move healthcare without Republicans, including employing budget reconciliation rules to pass a bill with a simple majority, Schumer said.

Enzi flatly rejected the notion of any kind of deadline in a statement issued Monday just minutes into the meeting in Baucus’s office.

“I have not and will not agree to an artificial deadline because I am committed to getting healthcare reform right, not finishing a bill by some arbitrary date," said Enzi, who is a Finance Committee member as well as the ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which approved its portion of the healthcare bill without any a single GOP vote.

"Improving access to quality, affordable healthcare for American families is too important to do hastily. Additionally, since many of the policies under discussion will not take effect for a number of years, we should focus on the goal of meaningful reform and not rush to meet timelines,” Enzi said.

Snowe told reporters Monday that "we're certainly going to try" to come to agreement by Sept. 15, but, minutes later, rejected the notion of a deadline. "I think we should disregard timetables," she said.